For centuries now, classical music has been in the habit of fusing tradition with innovation. Composers and performers of the 21st century are living up to that legacy. Not only are they embracing the masters of yore that have made classical music the pinnacle of fine art music for the last 400 years, but they are also finding new ways to make the genre more relevant amidst calls for diversity and the dawning of the digital age
The following artists have been garnering recognition for the contemporary sound, unique presentation, and fresh image they’ve injected into classical music over the last decade. As we enter the new ‘20s, we believe these are some of the artists who will be leading the way.
New York-based composer Christopher Cerrone has had his fair share of accolades in recent years. He was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for his 70-minute opera “Invisible Cities,” and the recent album“The Pieces That Fall to Earth” featuring three of his vocal song cycles was just nominated for a Grammy in the small ensemble category. Neither won the award but both were lauded by critics.
Cerrone’s compositional style can be somewhat sparse and metallic yet reverential way, much like the iconic Estonian composer Arvo Part, and when Cerrone does err toward a more lush and full orchestration, the payoff will often give you goosebumps. In addition, there is a certain mystery and gravitas to Cerrone’s music that makes it hard to walk away. He’s a busy guy with several commissions in the works for the year ahead.
The Pieces That Fall to Earth: 4. Swept Up Whole — Composed by Christopher Cerrone — Performed by Lindsay Kesselman, wildUp & Christopher Rountree
Anyone with the last name Kanneh-Mason
Kanneh-Mason is a family name that just kind of rolls off the tongue these days. The sensation began with then-17-year-old cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason winning the BBC Young Musician Award in 2016 and releasing his first album, “Inspiration,” shortly thereafter. His star gained some serious momentum after playing at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Then that cellist’s piano playing older sister Isata Kanneh-Mason stepped into the spotlight late last year with her debut album “Romance,”celebrating the music of Clara Schumann. This was a bold move for Isata Kanneh-Mason as it’s a rarity when one opts for the music on their first album to be from outside the central classical music canon. Isata and Sheku are the first and third oldest siblings in a family of seven, all of whom are musicians. Needless to say, I won’t be shocked if we see another Kanneh-Mason came out of the woodwork in 2020. For instance, Braimah Kanneh-Mason, the second oldest, is a violinist performing regularly around the U.K. and also studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Look out world — here come the Kanneh-Masons!
"Piano Concerto in A minor: III. Allegro non troppo" — Composed by Clara Schumann — Performed by Isata Kanneh-Mason, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra & Holly Matthieson
The stringed foursome known as the Attacca Quartet met in 2003 at the Juilliard School, where they were all students. Since that time the group has won several international awards, released four albums and played through the entire cycle of Haydn string quartets, of which there are 68.
The group won their first Grammy Award last month, claiming the prize for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Recording with the utterly spectacular “Orange,” an album devoted entirely to the music of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw. Attacca Quartet are championing music by living composers and at the same time, raising the bar on performances of the old masters. With so much already going for this young ensemble, I have a feeling they are about to really hit their stride in the coming years as one of the premier string quartets in the world.
"John’s Book of Alleged Dances: She’s So Fine" — Composed by John Adams — Performed by the Attacca Quartet
Great conductors rise from the ranks to appointments of leadership with orchestras to shape their future and act as advocates and ambassadors for the music and their organization. Here are a few conductors and music directors to watch in 2020.
Not yet even 35, Elim Chan has won prestigious conducting competitions, fellowships and positions with major orchestras where she has championed works by female composers. Still young and on the rise, her very presence on the podium promotes the viability of women in orchestral leadership roles worldwide.
"Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, op. 21: III. Allegro vivace" — Composed by Frédéric Chopin — Performed by Benjamin Grosvenor, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Elim Chan
Eun Sun Kim
After making her U.S. conducting debut with the Houston Grand Opera in 2017, Eun Sun Kim was immediately appointed that company’s first principal guest conductor in 25 years. Only six months after making her debut conducting the San Francisco Opera in June 2019, she was named their next music director. She is the first woman, and the first Asian, to lead a major opera company in North America.
But beyond her doctorate in music from Stuttgart, beyond her high regard from major names in classical music around the world including mentor Daniel Barenboim, beyond being conversant in six languages, there’s something else about Eun Sun Kim. SF Opera General Director Matthew Shivlock said, “She leads with great vision on the podium, but also welcomes each and every person into the creative process, inviting them to do their very best work.” With an initial contract of five years, effective in 2021, Eun Sun Kim will lead the San Francisco Opera up to and beyond their centennial celebrations in 2023, playing a key role in the company’s artistic priorities along the way.
"Der Graf von Luxemburg, Act II: Finale. Kommt ein Falter leicht geflattert" — Composed by Franz Lehar — Performed by the Frankfurt Opera, chorus and soloists & Eun Sun Kim
Esa-Pekka Salonen, along with Eun Sun Kim, is making the San Francisco music scene one to watch in coming years. He will replace Michael Tilson Thomas when he completes 25 years as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony in 2020.
A fan of technology, Salonen looks forward to enhancing the concert-going experience into a more multi-sensory one. Toward this, he has already recruited a “think tank” of eight collaborators from various disciplines to explore experimentation, including musicians, activists and even a roboticist. His forward-thinking innovations with help from Silicon Valley could have an effect on the world of orchestral music far beyond Davies Symphony Hall.
Here is Salonen conducting his own composition. With its variety of rhythm, dynamics and atmosphere it could certainly be paired with some sort of creative technology installation. Or at the very least a really awesome light show.
"Violin Concerto: Movement Three: Pulse II" — Composed by Esa-Pekka Salonen — Performed by Leila Josefowicz, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra & Esa-Pekka Salonen
A BBC New Generation artist, violinist Elena Urioste is definitely one to watch. She's only in her 30s and has already played with a good number of the large orchestras around the world, including the New York, Los Angeles and Buffalo Philharmonics, Boston Pops, London and Royal Liverpool Philharmonics, and the BBC Orchestra to name just a few. But her work does not stop on the traditional concert stage, and that's why I selected her. She also founded the Chamber Music By The Sea festival in a Maryland town that had no such thing previously, and uses the festival to feature many local artists as well. Three cheers for that!
Perhaps her most intriguing new venture though is Intermission Sessions, which she co-founded. Intermission Sessions is "a program that combines music, movement, and mindfulness, aiming to make music-making a healthier, more holistic practice for students and professionals alike through yoga and meditation." As a professional musician myself I know how necessary this is, while also sadly being a surprising rarity in the field!
"Suite for Violin and Piano: II. Mother and Child" — Composed by Williams Grant Still — Performed by Elena Urioste & Tom Poster
Hildur Gudnadottir of Iceland is the first solo female composer to win a Golden Globe. Need I say more? Probably not, but I will: Her score for “Joker” netted her this prize, while she already had an Emmy for her “Chernobyl” score. But why stop there? She is now also the first solo woman to win Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media at the Grammys. All this, and only 37 years old. And composition isn't even her only artistic work, as she's a classically trained cellist as well and has performed with many notable and diverse ensembles. If she isn’t an up and coming artist to watch, I don’t know who is!
"Joker (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack): Call Me Joker" — Composed by Hildur Gudnadottir — Performed by Ellis Drane and His Jazz Orchestra
Other news outlets have taken notice of soprano Julia Bullock as well. American Vocalist calls her a “a musician who delights in making her own rules.” The New York Times has called her an "impressive, fast-rising soprano... poised for a significant career.” She, like my other selections, is in her 30s and has already seen such successful appointments as the 2019-20 artist-in-residence of the San Francisco Symphony and 2018-19 artist-in-residence of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
More than those accomplishments (and her stunning crystal clear voice) is her use of her art for activism. Per her own website, her own mixed race heritage informs her politics and she works to integrate community activism into her musical life. As well as trying to undertake outreach work in each city she visits, she serves on the advisory board of Turn The Spotlight, a foundation designed to empower women and people of color, both on stage and behind the scenes, to make a more equitable future in the arts. Amazing. I'm excited to see what comes next.
"Ballet Sequence from 'West Side Story': Somewhere" — Composed by Leonard Bernstein — Performed by Julia Bullock, the San Francisco Symphony & Michael Tilson Thomas
The fact that Xavier Foley has made the double bass a virtuosic solo instrument captured my attention and fancy. It's just… not really a thing. And he transforms those misconceptions effortlessly the moment you hear him play. He also happens to be the youngest artist on my list. Barely 25, he already has been awarded the 2018 Avery Fisher Career Grant and is a resident artist of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s CMS Two program. He loves to compose as well, and the likes of Carnegie Hall have taken notice. He was co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and the Sphinx Organization to write a piece for violin, bass and string orchestra as a part of a program to promote social justice. (Can you imagine?! Being commissioned by Carnegie when you are still in your 20s?! He can.) More youthful people getting involved and using their talent and art to make the world a better place. I love it.
"Intermezzo and Tarantella, Op. 9" — Composed by Rheinhold Gliere — Performed by Xavier Foley & Kelly Yu-Chieh Lin